By Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com
The Boca Raton Museum of Art is currently featuring a most unusual exhibit of stunning artwork that has been seen by millions but barely noticed before.
The South Florida museum is the first to display the Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, an exhibit of some of the scenic backdrops that were used in major motion pictures made between 1938 and 1968. The 22 hand-painted canvasses in the exhibit include those utilized for classic scenes in “The Sound of Music,” “Ben-Hur,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “North by Northwest.”
These are massive works of art that were used to create the illusion of an outdoor or on-location setting for scenes shot in a Hollywood sound stage.
They never attracted much attention, if any, before. But they were indispensable for creating movie magic in their time.
Now they are being celebrated as an art form. And the talented artists who worked in obscurity to produce them are finally being recognized.
The exhibit, which opened in April 2022, will run through Jan. 22, 2023.
Scenic backdrops are masterpieces of illusion
We have enjoyed a lot of different types of art exhibits. But I don’t recall another that inspired such joy and sense of wonder.
It registers immediately upon entering the museum and encountering the giant backdrop of Mount Rushmore from North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller that had Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint making a harrowing descent over the rocky faces of the presidents to escape a pursuer.
Except those rocky faces were actually painted in watercolor on unbleached white muslin sewn together in three-yard wide strips to form the mountainous rendering that was hung in an MGM sound stage. It was a true masterpiece of illusion.
These backdrops are some of the largest paintings ever created on canvas, yet they were intended to project a much larger than life reality. Such as the Austrian Alps where the von Trapp family frolicked in “The Sound of Music.” They are depicted by two backings in a large room of the gallery.
Making this more than a static exhibit and providing perspective are videos playing adjacent to the various backdrops showing scenes from the movies and interviews with legendary George Gibson, who headed MGM’s scenic design department for 30 years.
Artists worked in ‘building like no other’
Gibson was a pioneer of the medium and mastermind behind the production of countless background scenes, some of which were used repeatedly in making multiple motion pictures.
He convinced the studio to build a cavernous workshop to expedite production of the huge backdrops, which needed to be created quickly and had to appear convincing on film. What was referred to as a building like no other had four 100-foot wide by 40-foot tall pain frames to enable the artists to work on multiple backdrops at a time.
The first film Gibson worked on for the studio was “The Wizard of Oz,” which came out in 1939. Unfortunately, those colorful backdrops have been lost.
But those on display at the Boca Raton museum provide an appreciation for the art form, but more importantly for the talented scenic artists who didn’t even receive credits with the films.
The backdrops in the exhibit are on loan from J.C. Backings, a company that has preserved hundreds of them from the golden-era of movie making and currently produces scenic backgrounds, some painted but many by photograph or digital print. The existence of the classic backdrops came to light through a 2016 book called “The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop” and a 2020 CBS Sunday Morning program on the topic.
Backdrops portray famous scenes
Karen Maness, assistant professor of scenic design and figurative painting at the University of Texas at Austin who co-authored the book, says, “Despite being among the largest paintings ever created, they were never recognized in cinematic history nor were the artists. And the techniques used in these paintings are the foundation for the evolution of our modern special effects.”
They are a historical treasure of the American movie industry.
In addition to the backings from prominent movies, there are cityscapes and elaborate interiors, including a ballroom with a grand staircase that draws you right in to the setting (used in “Marnie,” 1964), and a winter scene that makes you shiver. There are Paris views, an exterior view of Westminster Alley (“Young Bess,” 1953) and a panorama of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop is well worth the $12 admission ($10 for ages 65 and over, free for children and students) and may merit a return visit.
There is a related exhibit on the second floor of the museum, “Art Meets Hollywood.” Palm Beach photographer Bonnie Lautenberg combines stills from classic films with visual artworks completed in the same year of the movies they are paired with. Some of the connections work better than others, but it is a unique and creative concept.
The Boca Raton Museum of Art is at 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, at the north end of Mizner Park Shopping Mall. Parking is free in the adjacent garage.
Hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. on Thursday (closed Monday and Tuesday).
Dinner at Mizner
The Boca Raton Museum of Art is walking distance from the restaurants at Mizner Park. We enjoyed tacos at Calaveras Cantina (409 Plaza Real). The spicy pork belly was an easy choice. Fran gave two thumbs up to the veggie taco: roasted cauliflower, sweet potato, smoked black bean puree, spicy avocado sauce, pumpkin seeds, cilantro and spinach. Overall a good vibe for an early dinner at an outside table.